Designing Digital Communities – A Software Maker’s Imperative

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Since 2006 the founders of both coMakeIT and 3sides have been working on enabling digital communities. Many times, they found each other solving similar problems pertaining to business relationships. And they realized that these problems are so common but are rarely addressed in the right way. Their collaboration in community engineering is aimed at broadening the impact of various software products through communities. Thus, they put ‘community’ at the very heart of their business philosophies. We’ve all come a long way from the initial days of software engineering to the constantly connected digital era’s community management.

The evolution of software

At the start of this millennium, the ERP software world was still dominated by solutions with big monolithic architectures like Baan ERP, Oracle, and SAP R3. For the relief of many, the Y2K problem passed largely without any significant crashes. Mobile phones were in vogue and a car kit was a status symbol. The internet was taking the world by storm. Despite the fast-advancing technologies, software releases took as long as 3 years to enter the market.

Monolithic architectures were blocking the software solutions from growing as fast as the consumer wants them to. Many new companies moved from mainframe to client-server and thin clients. Baan Company’s founder, Jan Baan criticized his own product and called it “mother of all complexities”. He took a bold step in 2002 and built his new BPM company called Cordys with a mission to democratize development. He encouraged “citizen developers” to create new application capabilities with “zero-coding” tools in a multi-tenant, thin-client system. This paved the path to today’s low-code platforms like Mendix, Outsystems, and many others.

This is the story of evolution from a monolithic standalone product to an open platform product. These days, every software maker, consciously or unconsciously, is considering ways to participate in the ecosystem economy. They are either driving a keystone position in their own ecosystem (allowing others to connect with them) or participating in today’s ecosystems by Salesforce, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft.

As products scaled up into platforms, users have formed communities to engage in supporting, popularizing, and extending the products. They take the knowledge of the products beyond the makers and direct the product’s usage and development. These community forums have now made user guides redundant and even replaced them.  

Intellectual Property (IP) Fundamentals: The IP cell division and merge

A developer finds a solution to a business problem. It puts its Intellectual Property into machine language called software. While creating a user guide, the developer translates the IP back into a human language that ultimately turns into user’s knowledge. It is the very same IP. One is readable by a machine, the other by a human. The fundamental trick is to merge those again and give the user the tools and knowledge needed to solve the intended business problem.

Since knowledge is not very strict, a lot of software vendors forgot to find an effective way to distribute the right knowledge. Many will recognize that as much as 90% of a software’s functionality remains untapped because users did not know it exists or how to use it. In kanban/lean tools, this is called “waste”. Mastering the distribution of knowledge is the vital ingredient to fast and full product adoption and ultimately Return On Investment (ROI).

However, with the evolution of communities, this knowledge could be transferred more effectively. As new features were added to products, the makers could get feedback from communities faster and leverage their potential to popularize the product and guide other new users in using the product. The support forums and communities have now replaced user guides as community engineers replaced writers.

The evolution of community

In 1998, Swiss author Etienne Wenger published his ground-breaking book, Communities of Practice. The timing could not have been better. The book provided insight into how communities would be built as the internet connects more people. Online communities started enabling people with a common interest to share their knowledge. This led to the rise of the communities like MySpace, Hyves, and Facebook for consumers and enterprise platforms like inSided and Verint Community. The latter which started in the early 2000’s as Microsoft’s Community Server, ultimately entered the market under the brand name Telligent.

In the early adoptions, most communities were seen as a ‘social experiment’. The task of building it was usually given to a young university grad. This has brought fresh ideas, but the junior graduate couldn’t foresee the much deeper implications of opening up an online community. Even after a community grew and its impact on the business expanded, not every community manager could garner enough executive support for the next step in the evolution. An online community sadly does not fit into the predesignated departments like Sales, Marketing, Support, Product Development, etc. Yet, it impacts all of them. It gave the customers a voice to make themselves be heard. Suddenly customer’s opinions expressed in the community could impact business reputation. Businesses could no more dictate what the customer should experience.

Community and Software Development: Where the two flows meet

While products participate in platforms, users participate in communities. It is not uncommon to reach an employee/community-member ratio of 1:50 or even 1:100. So, the community knows the product more than its makers. They can even use and distribute it in ways the makers never have thought of. Companies are now using community-generated content for training.

In companies without a community, 80 percent of cases in their support backlog are knowledge related and 20 percent are bug related. Whereas in companies with a community as much as 70 percent of their backlog cases are bug related and the rest 30 percent are knowledge related. It is thus evident that communities disperse knowledge to users more effectively and help companies focus better on bugs and complex knowledge related cases.

Software vendors now ask users to vote for enhancement ideas in communities, so that they can work on what customers find more important and necessary. Moreover, Community-generated content increases google ratings and as a by-product contribute to lead generation, outweighing traditional marketing tactics.

The speed of innovation

Every MBA student is taught the classic study done by Shell Oil in the 80’s. After a huge research effort, Shell found that the ONLY competitive advantage that guarantees survival, is to innovate faster than your competition. You can innovate the solution yourself or buy it off the market. Building communities has now become an important and essential aspect of innovating a product or a platform and aligning it with the market needs. A good community strategy by experts, tailored to your needs and your business environment, can give you the competitive advantage.

About 3sides and coMakeIT

3sides strongly believes in the power of digital communities and the value it can bring businesses and organisations. It offers community strategy and growth consultancy, training and coaching, journey and experience, design, and solution implementation services to clients on a project and subscription basis.

coMakeIT is a software product engineering company with vast experience in building scalable and reliable products for ISVs. They build innovative products, modernize applications, and digitally transform enterprises. 

Having seen first-hand how community success is directly linked to greater customer engagement, faster product improvements, lower support costs, and improved customer retention, coMakeIT and 3sides have partnered to help organizations build and grow successful communities. When community strategy expertise of 3 Sides is combined with platform engineering expertise of coMakeIT, it creates the perfect strategy for customers keen on building continuously growing digital communities.

Whether you’re just getting started or ready to scale, growing a community is essential to succeed in the world of digital sales and self-service buying journeys, but it can be tough. There are no straight answers to these questions – How do I choose the right technology? How do I get organisational buy-in? Where do I start? How do I make sure I continue growing? To find what solution best suits you, contact us for a chat with one of our community success experts.

Kiran Madhunapantula, COO
Kiran Madhunapantula is passionate about radical trends in software development using techniques like Lean Software Development and Scrum, building high-performance teams, and organizing distributed innovation.

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